ATLANTA — The year 2022 began and ended with kicks for Ohio State football.
While Noah Ruggles’ game-winner in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 gave the Buckeyes something to feel good about heading into the offseason, his miss in the Peach Bowl as the last seconds of Dec. 31 ticked away leaves a cloudier picture about what is in store for 2023.
C.J. Stroud saved perhaps his best performance in Scarlet and Gray for what is presumed to be his last, completing 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns without an interception despite injuries sidelining his top receiver, running back and tight end by the time the College Football Playoff semifinal ended.
Stroud also used his legs to move the chains multiple times, including a 27-yard scramble that got the Buckeyes to the edge of Ruggles’ range with 24 seconds to go.
“What this guy did and the way he competed in the second half with all those things coming at him, I just can’t say enough. I’m so proud of the way he played,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “He’s not the only one, but he’s sitting right here, and he’s the quarterback of this team. Just the way he attacked this game, I couldn’t be any prouder of the way he did that.
“We were missing some guys out there, and we were trying to figure it out. On the biggest stage, he played one of his best games, in my opinion.”
For most of the night, the Peach Bowl also looked like it would be redemptive for Day both as a head coach and offensive coordinator.
Stroud came out throwing darts to open receivers all over the field in no small part because Day and his staff put together a strong plan for attacking a Georgia defense that is good but had noticeable vulnerabilities in the secondary and pass rush.
The Buckeyes had a handful of three-and-outs, but most of the night they were aggressive and effective in ways they had not been against Michigan the past two years or in a loss to Oregon in 2021, all games in which the defense struggled but the offense failed to pick that unit up by putting up its typical numbers.
“We really were dialed in on what we were going to do,” Stroud said. “Coach Day called a hell of a game. Our game plan was superb.
“When we were out there, it was kind of like you knew what was going to happen. When you’re playing like that, you’re playing free. You’re having fun.
“That probably was the most fun game I ever played in my life. It just sucks that it has to come down like that, but God’s plan, it’s something you don’t really understand in the moment. It’s something that you really won’t understand maybe ever, but He thinks greater than us.”
Day deferred to Stroud for making it work on the field.
“They’re all good plays when you have good players,” Day said.
Stroud has not made an announcement, but all assumptions are the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy finalist will go to the NFL because that is what players projected to be first-round picks do 99 percent of the time these days.
If he does, the cupboard will be far from bare as Day can hold a competition between junior five-star recruit Kyle McCord and redshirt freshman four-star recruit Devin Brown to replace Stroud, but Ohio State will need a better defense in 2023 no matter who is playing quarterback.
Jim Knowles was brought in (at the price of $1.9 million annually) to fix a unit that struggled most of 2020 and ‘21 and gave up 45 points on the first day of 2022 to Utah.
The Buckeyes showed some improvement but not nearly enough as repeatedly giving up explosive plays sunk them in losses to Michigan and Georgia to end the season.
Knowles needed four seasons to get Oklahoma State’s defense near the top nationally, but he said from day one he knew he had to work faster in Columbus.
“We didn’t get it done in the fourth quarter defensively, and it’s up to me now to spend a lot of dark nights figuring that out,” Knowles said in the locker room after the game. “It’s not the players. It’s on me to put them in the right positions.
“Like I said from the beginning: At Ohio State, the expectations are different. That’s why we get paid the way we do. That’s why we get the resources that we do. The expectations are different. Do I think we played our best? I don’t know. I’ll have to watch the film, but I know we gave up too many plays. And that’s my job to fix that and not let that happen.”
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